The first time I heard of George Beverly Shea was at breakfast one morning in 1955, when my Dad was telling my Mum, my sister and myself about Billy Graham, George Beverly Shea and Cliff Barrows. At that time Dad was a policeman in Glasgow and the previous evening he had been on points and crowd control duty at the Kelvin Hall in the city. He spoke about thousands of people queuing to get into the Kelvin Hall to hear an American evangelist on his first crusade to Scotland. While they waited for up to three hours for the doors to open, the crowd sang hymns and gospel songs. My Dad said,” The singing was good on the way in, but on the way out! it was wonderful!”
George Beverly Shea was born on 1st February 1909 in Ontario, Canada, one of eight children born to a Wesleyan Methodist minister father and a mother who played the organ in his church. He grew up playing piano, organ and violin and sang in the church choir. His early ambition was to be a Mountie. He moved to New York State in the US to attend a Christian College but left without completing his degree in order to return home to help support his family during the Depression. For ten years, he worked as an insurance clerk, taking voice lessons in the evenings. It’s unclear as to when his conversion took place. However at the age of twenty-three he found a poem by Rhea Miller. He put music to it thus creating what would become one of his signature songs, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold”.
In 1947, a young Southern Baptist minister called William Franklin (Billy) Graham Jnr heard him sing on the radio and invited Shea to join him and musical director Cliff Barrows for the first of what Billy Graham called his “crusades” in Charlotte, North Carolina. Those three men would spend the next 50 years traveling the world together on these crusades.
George Beverly Shea recorded in excess of 70 Gospel albums one of which earned him a Grammy Award in 1966. In 2011, at the grand old age of 102, he became the oldest recipient of a Grammy – on this occasion a Lifetime Achievement Award which he received in person. Apart from his appearances on Dr Graham’s TV and radio shows, he sang at prayer services in the White House for presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to George Bush Snr. It is said that his voice was heard from North Dakota to North Korea!
Over the six weeks of the 1955 Crusade in Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, many thousands walked forward to enquire further or to give their lives to Jesus. It is estimated that over 2.5 million Scots heard George Beverly Shea sing and Dr Billy Graham preach. A BBC TV broadcast of the Crusade attracted the biggest audience since the Coronation two years earlier. The Reformed churches in Scotland experienced a large increase in membership over the next couple of years. Some regarded this as a defining moment in Scottish religious history.
The last time I heard of George Beverly Shea was on 16th April 2013, when George Hamilton IV announced from the stage at Eden Court Theatre that “George Beverly Shea had, that morning, gone Home to be with his Lord”.
A truly long life dedicated to the Lord’s service in this world had come to an end:
a glorious life continues in Eternity.